Free speech and social media moderation

This video discussion, audio downloadable here, discusses the issues raised in this post.

I’ve previously expressed some dissatisfaction with what I might call a ‘one dimensional’ understanding of the idea of liberty. This post explores another aspect of that — free speech on social media. But first the backstory.

Someone referred me to David Thunder who seems like an interesting and earnest guy whose interests and inclinations seem very like my own, at least judging from his website.1 Anyway, Twitter in its infinite wisdom decided to de-platform him for disputing various tablets handed down to us by those folks who think that being science-based means doing what you’re told by medical bureaucrats — you know people like Brendan ‘masks are silly’ Murphy and Nick ‘am I trending yet?’ Coatsworth. I disagree with him on some of the points he’s made, but it’s obvious they’re made sincerely, thoughtfully and, according to his lights responsibly.

But on reading this post on Elon Musk’s recent interest in freer speech on social media, I expressed my disappointment at its endorsement of ‘free speech’ as a principle without grappling with the difficulties social media disinformation is raising for us all. It seemed to me that his own preoccupation with virtue ethics is a good place to start to go beyond the idea that the right rule is all we need. In any event, an edited version of my lengthy second comment is below the fold.

I’m not sure the way you’ve cast the issue — of coming up with the right rule — satisfies me. I think we have two sides of a debate and a very difficult, evolving situation and both sides are impatient — impatient to get to the answer using the puny intellectual tools at their disposal. One side has some bowdlerised critical theory quickly shunted into a bureaucratic system. The other has the Enlightenment idea that a universal rule is the way to solve this.

All fair enough — I can’t say I have any quick response that’s better. But we could at least dwell on how inadequate these things are. We learned from the USSR and perhaps from the French terror that you can have any rule you like, you also need a culture that honours and supports the values from which it comes. Right now it’s pretty obvious that neither the silicon valley digital overlords, nor the serfs at the edge of their social networks give too many figs for any of that.

So the wider task, it seems to me, is not to agree on some rule that can be imposed and is the best we can design. That’s the problem Twitter has I guess and the problem which they’ve got you to suffer from — they’ve applied a rule that suits them. It is to ask ourselves how we can rebuild sufficient trust and goodwill between people in both the digital and analogue world that would make the mutual respect between people (including of course respect for vigorous contest in ideas) live vividly in our lives.

At least as I understand it, virtue ethics was an attempt to get away from modes of modern ethical thinking that reach up to a singular apex principal. What is the alternative? Some attempt to engage human beings’ ethical sense more directly — not through a pyramid with the sovereign at the top and accountability to the top all the way down that pyramid, but in small communities which might come up with different answers.

Of course that doesn’t work on a global network so both you and Twitter have the same problem — though you’d solve it differently — you both need a singular rule. I think neither of you properly problematise what the rule should be. You say it should be ‘free speech’. I’m not so sure. I was once the chair of an online news site and the editor proposed to publish (or did publish — I can’t remember) a piece that entertained the idea that black people were dumber than white people. I think it’s a very difficult decision to make whether one should publish a piece like that, but I didn’t have to decide because I was certain that if any such article were to be published it would have to meet very high standards of intellectual and moral seriousness. The article palpably did not show it.

The reason I think you have been hardly done by is that your seriousness on both counts shines through. But I don’t have a problem with Twitter ‘banning’ ‘disinformation’ of which there is a great deal. I’d add that my guess is that most (not all) of Twitter’s behaviour is explained by the fact that it’s run by profit-maximising bureaucratic decision-makers. There’s an obvious ideological slant to the decisions it takes, but in most large organisations, ethics usually ultimately comes down to PR. (Think of the utterly outrageous sacking of James Damore from Google for confidentially circulating a well-argued position that turned into a PR problem — SACKED! Stunning. There too, there was an ideological trigger, but the real action was that the senior people wanted to ‘move on’ from some tricky PR — including internally.)

In your case with Twitter, I suspect it wouldn’t warm to my ‘rule’ about moral and intellectual seriousness because it’s both messy and expensive to administer and it wouldn’t be easily understood out in the world. My own hunch for a way to work to a better solution is to say that the cultural rules on a dominant social platform should be constructed within the community in some way (or as I like to put it — culture is a public good). One could do this with a mix of sortition and what I call ‘de-competitive’ merit selection mechanisms. And why not allow a number of experiments to be run where different sortition based groups come up with different approaches in different parts of Twitter — perhaps divided by subject matter, geography or one might come up with some other criterion. (Every one of these divisions would be easy to quibble with of course!)?

What thinkest thou O Troppodillians?


My doctoral dissertation is a critique of John Rawls’s ideal of public reason, focusing in particular on the moral restrictions it places on public discourse; and an attempt to elaborate a virtue-ethical ideal of public reason that gives more scope to self-expression and ethical integrity in the public square. … Two questions were of special interest to me: first, how can individual persons find the knowledge and motivation to contribute to the public life of their communities in a responsible and effective manner; and second, how can individual persons remain faithful to their own ethical commitments as they exercise their social and civic roles? … The question that drives my current research agenda is: How can human beings live free and flourishing lives, in a complex, culturally and morally diverse, and interdependent society? More specifically, how can they realize the distinctive goods of associational life and simultaneously submit to an inter-associational order, without becoming colonised by an overarching normative order such as that of the State, or of a multi-national corporation?

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